Wayne Lesperance, vice president of academic affairs and professor at New England College, and Stephan Unger, a professor of economics and business at Saint Anselm College, joined the latest Facing the Future program to discuss political and civic engagement of college students, the New Hampshire primary, the fiscal policies of other nations and more.
Lesperance, who has been teaching for 20 years, said that his current students are at least as engaged as past students, if not more. What he has found to be different is the wider range of issues that matter to students today.
“Because of access to media and information . . . there’s a lot of informed opinion and thinking, but about a whole host of issues,” Lesperance said. “That’s pretty exciting to me.”
Lesperance also said that current students would likely say their voices are not being sufficiently heard. “Getting involved, showing that they have a stake in what happens, is increasingly important to them,” he said.
He expressed frustration with civics education in the country, finding it fails to fully prepare college students for engagement in our political system.
“Civics literacy in our country, I would say, is at an all-time low,” he said. “We’re not devoting enough time in our K-12 education to this.”
“A real basic, fundamental knowledge of our founding, of our founders’ promise, what it means to be America, those things are largely lost these days,” Lesperance said. “We have to find a way to get them back in the classroom.”
Lesperance helps facilitate the New Hampshire Primary Student Convention with New England College, which invites students from around the country to New Hampshire to engage presidential candidates and issue-based organizations during the First in the Nation Primary.
“What I found is, we had no trouble finding folks that wanted to come do that,” he said. “We bring just about 1,000 students from all over the country.”
Lesperance said he hopes presidential candidates will treat his college students like any other voters. “They respect the integrity of somebody saying, ‘well, I appreciate your point of view, but I don’t agree.’ ”
Unger had The Concord Coalition into one of his classes this past fall to facilitate the organization’s federal budget exercise, “Principles & Priorities.” He thought it was important for his students to have a hands-on experience regarding the unsustainable federal debt, and he plans to have Concord back.
“The topics you cover in this exercise are based on reality,” he said. “They (students) have to decide how much money they will spend on national security, health care, Social Security, or how much taxes should be raised or lowered.”
“It was very well received by the students,” Unger added. “They loved seeing how the negotiating process really works.”
“It’s essential not only for economic and finance students, but it should be necessary knowledge for everybody who wants to participate in the political discussion,” he said.
Unger also said that Austria, his home country, and other members of the European Union have similar fiscal policy challenges.
“Basically, it’s the same mess as in the U.S.,” he said. “We are not as in debt as the U.S., but nevertheless it is a huge issue . . . ”
He explained that Austria has a fiscal council that attempts to keep its budget from exceeding annual budget deficits, as set by the E.U. But there is no punishment for violating these limits and most member countries do so.
Unger said the Austrian public cares about stagnating economic growth and debt build-up, but culturally Austrians tend to be relaxed and not complain much. But in other nations there are large protests.
He said that if he were talking to candidates campaigning to be president, he would ask how they would ensure continued demand for the dollar and U.S. debt. The nation’s heavy reliance on debt-financing, he said, has international implications.
Hear more on “Facing the Future.” I host the program each week on WKXL, NHTalkRadio.com (N.H.), and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, elected officials and candidates for public office. Past broadcasts are available here. You can now subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play or through RSS.